KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia’s high-profile trial of two women accused of killing the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader resumes Monday after a seven-week recess, with defence lawyers saying their efforts have been stymied by missing links.
Indonesia’s Siti Aisyah, 25, and Vietnam’s Doan Thi Huong, 29, are accused of smearing a nerve agent on Kim Jong Nam’s face in a crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur last Feb. 13. The two are the only suspects in custody, though prosecutors have said four North Koreans who fled the country were also involved.
Prosecutors have focused on proving the women’s guilt but shied away from scrutinizing any political motive behind the killing.
Gooi Soon Seng, the lawyer for Siti Aisyah, said the defence will seek to shift the focus to the North Koreans but their case is largely crippled by the lack of crucial evidence such as the content of Kim Jong Nam’s mobile phone, which could provide clues on why he was killed. Prosecutors say the phone and most of his belongings, along with Kim’s body, were returned to North Korea in the days after his murder.
“The content of his phone is vital because it could show how he arrived at the airport, who he linked up with in Malaysia, what actually happened. Until now, there is no evidence of possible debts, love affairs or revenge that could cause someone to take his life. We are saying it’s a political assassination because of the involvement of the North Korean Embassy,” Gooi told The Associated Press.
A police witness has testified that a car used to take the North Korean suspects to the airport on the day of the murder belonged to the embassy. The court also heard that an embassy official met the suspects before they fled and facilitated their check-in at the airport.
Here’s a look at the evidence that has emerged since the trial began in October.
Kim Jong Nam was seen on airport security video being approached by two women who appear to smear something on his face. The footage showed Kim gesturing for help before he suffered seizures. He was dead within two hours.
An autopsy showed the banned VX nerve agent was found on Kim’s face and in his eyes, blood and urine, and other tests found it on his clothing and bag. His brain, lungs, liver and spleen were damaged. Doctors concluded the cause of death was “acute VX nerve agent poisoning,” and ruled out any other contributing factors.
Police testified Kim was carrying eight currencies, including $124,000. Ironically, he also carried a known antidote for nerve agents.
Kim, the eldest son in the family that has ruled North Korea since its founding, had been living abroad for years after falling out of favour. It is thought he could have been seen as a threat to his half brother Kim Jong Un’s rule.
If they are convicted, the two women could face the death penalty but not if they lacked intent to kill. That is their defence.
The court has heard that traces of VX were found on the women’s clothing as well as on Huong’s fingernails. A government chemist testified that VX was a “strategic” choice of poison because it doesn’t evaporate quickly and a victim could be targeted without affecting the surroundings.
The chemist told the court that rubbing VX on a person’s eye would be the fastest way to kill because the eyes have no barrier like the skin. He said the palm is the least sensitive area and VX can be safely washed from the hand within 15 minutes of exposure, which could explain why the women weren’t affected.
Prosecutors contend the women knew they were handling poison and deliberately rushed to wash their hands after the attack. Security footage shows both holding their hands away from their bodies as they hurry to separate restrooms.
Defence lawyers argued that the women didn’t flee the country or discard their clothing, indicating they didn’t know they were handling poison. They say the women believed they were playing a prank for a hidden-camera TV show.
THE NORTH KOREANS
Police have told the court that several North Korean men helped plot the attack, including a man one of the women says hired her to stage pranks. The four men left Malaysia on the day of the killing. North Korea has denied any involvement.
A police investigator identified the four as Hong Song Hac, Ri Ji Hyon, Ri Jae Nam and O Jong Gil. On Malaysia’s request, Interpol has issued wanted notices for the men, who are believed to be back in Pyongyang, but North Korea is not a member of the organization.
Airport security video played in the courtroom showed all four discarding their belongings and changing their outfits after the attack. They were then seen meeting North Korean Embassy official Hyong Kwang Song and Air Koryo official Kim Uk-Il in another part of the airport before flying out of the country.
The embassy and officials of Air Koryo, North Korea’s state airline, have told police it was their duty to assist North Korean citizens leaving the country. Those two and another North Korean whom police were seeking to question were allowed to leave the country along with Kim Jong Nam’s body in March in exchange for the release of nine Malaysians stuck in North Korea.
The court heard that Hong Song Hac orchestrated the operation on the ground.
When the trial resumes, defence lawyers are to cross-examine the chief police investigator, viewed as the most important witness.
They are expected to ask him about the role of North Korean chemist Ri Jong Chol, who was detained shortly after the killing but was released due to lack of evidence and deported. Defence lawyers said Ri, who had used a North Korean Embassy car since 2015, was a key suspect and his house could have been used to make the nerve agent used in the killing.
However, Siti’s lawyer Gooi said he needed more time to analyze the content of mobile phones and laptops belonging to Ri and suggested prosecutors may instead continue with other witnesses in next week’s three-day hearing.
Prosecutor Wan Shaharuddin Wan Ladin told the AP that the defence had ample time to prepare and that prosecutors won’t call any new witnesses until the defence finishes questioning the police investigator. The judge will likely have to decide the conflict.
Malaysian officials have never officially accused North Korea of involvement in Kim’s death and have made it clear they don’t want the trial politicized.
So far, 26 witnesses have testified. Prosecutors have about a dozen more minor witnesses to call before they are expected to rest their case in March. The judge could then decide that there is no case against the women, who will be freed, or to let the case continue. If that’s his decision, the defence will be called and the trial will continue for several more months.